A long time ago (December 1967) in a galaxy far, far away (BBC Radio 4), Just a Minute was broadcast for the very first time, hosted by Nicholas Parsons. The three month old network station was still finding its feet, and the now-a-days emperor of panel shows contributed tremendously towards establishing my favourite radio station.
The origins of Just a Minute are said to come from Ian Messiter who, when travelling on the number 13 bus (destination unknown), recalled his school history master reprimanding him for day-dreaming by asking him to repeat everything he had said in the last minute without hesitation or repetition. To this Messiter added a further rule, which is now a key part of the show, which was that the contestant must not deviate from the subject in question. To this he also added the now so familiar scoring system whereby points are awarded for correct or incorrect ‘challenges’.
To this day those rules are pretty much the same. A regular panellist is joined each edition by three others. The contestants’ aim is to get through a minute without repetition, hesitation, or deviation. If any of those three things do happen, one of the other contestants can challenge. If they call it correctly, Nicholas Parsons will allow them the opportunity to pick up the strand for the remaining seconds. It is very rare that somebody goes an entire minute without a challenge, but it has been done.
Forty-five years since the show’s inception, it is now coming to the end of a celebratory run on BBC television. The format is the same, as is the presenter – in fact Parsons has appeared on every single show since its humble beginnings. There is even continuity in the regular panellist, Paul Merton, who has been regularly garnishing the show with his ‘dad’ humour since 1989. The only difference is that this time the action takes place in front of the cameras at a studio at BBC Television Centre on Wood Lane. But does a panel show synonymous with Radio 4 work on TV?
Yes. There’s no other answer, and anybody that says otherwise is wrong or lying. The TV version of the show, broadcast at 6pm on weeknights on BBC2, works perfectly. It takes the game we know and love (and are almost universally crap at), plays it as normal, and even occasionally enhances it.
“Enhances it? Hold on just a minute! Isn’t that blasphemy?” I hear you ask with a panic stricken voice, and yes, I’ll pardon the pun. My answer to your question is no. It is not blasphemy. Television and radio are simply two different media with their own traits and their own advantages. Radio 4 has its own style, its own traditions, and its own somewhat mesmerising cadence. The show we love is deep-set in these traditions but if it is to survive in a televisual world it has to conform to the medium. And Just a Minute does so. And it does it well. It doesn’t bin the stuff that we like about the show – that would be stupid, but what it does do is adopt a more visual stance.
Firstly, the studio is quite good looking. It is split into a traditional TV panel show style with the host in the middle, and two desks either side. Each desk is split into two sections and lights up when there is a challenge. The studio is elegant, and artistically reflects the radio origins of a show which is all about the elegance and intricacies of the English language.
Secondly, the cameras enhance the competitive side of the show too. I was fortunate enough to watch tonight’s edition in which Gyles Brandreth was amongst the guests. Brandreth, known for his lively use of English, is a somewhat animated character. This comes across perfectly well on radio and you can always tell who really wants it by the tone of their voice, the passion in their argument, and how they react when they are ultimately challenged. Television does all of these things but heightens it. Seeing Brandreth delivering his monologue on Peter Pan, getting out of his chair and animatedly waving his arms to the audience like a conductor, words his orchestra, was brilliant fun. And that wasn’t the best bit. Actually witnessing the battle between Brandreth and comedian, Tony Hawks, was fantastic. Seeing the pair get riled at one another, staring each other out, ready to pounce (on the buzzer) at any moment, was unmissable telly.
The third Just a Minute trait enhanced by TV is the chemistry between Parsons and his guests. We know from years of great radio that he’s a brilliant showman that can get the crowd going. We’ve audibly had a sense of that for years, but his verbal sparring with Merton, knowing looks to the audience when a comment is made, and his helping of the underdog works better when you can see them. In an episode earlier in the week Paul Merton deviated from the topic in question. Parsons, unwilling to let this slide, leaned over the desk and pointed to Jason Manford to press his buzzer. Manford did, and was awarded the challenge without really knowing why. This just would not have worked on radio.
Radio 4 is the traditional home of Just a Minute, and it should always remain there. But I would love to live in a future where all episodes of the programme are simulcast on the aforementioned station and also on BBC 2. It would be a great thing for the show, and would also contribute towards that well publicised dream – one BBC. Either way, I hope it returns to vision at some point in the near future.